There are two common responses when The Pencil Test owner Holly Powell tells people she runs a bra and lingerie boutique: “Oh, that’s kind of a niche market” and “retail is dying.”
But for Powell and her fitters at The Pencil Test’s Renton location, business has been good, even during the pandemic.
“One thing that was interesting was that people would buy a bra online and none of them would fit, which drove them to us to find bras in the right size,” said Powell, a former middle school teacher and librarian.
What sets The Pencil Test apart from similar stores is that it caters to people with larger busts, offering a wide selection of sizes and styles. The boutique also offers appointment fittings where Powell’s fitters Hallie Michael (who is also the manager), Mia Behnke, Nancy Look, Savannah Kindle and Vanessa Fialdini figure out a customer’s size without using a measuring tape, like one would expect at Victoria’s Secret or most other bra stores.
At these appointments, the fitters give advice on what size the customer’s band and cup is based on how they look with a shirt on, no measuring tape needed.
“There are a couple of fit bras to hand off for the customer to try on and we adjust and work form there,” said Kindle. “It’s a lot of looking at boobs and a lot of listening, a lot of observation.”
As it turns out, a measuring tape doesn’t give the whole story of what is needed to find a comfortable, fitted bra. Powell says the numbers on a measuring tape won’t consider how someone’s breasts are shaped or show whether a person has a lot of volume on the top or on the bottom when someone is wearing a bra.
The Pencil Test’s selection of 168 sizes — with a range of 28-inch to 48-inch bands and D to O cups — are also a factor in helping customers find the right size.
“Victoria’s Secret tries to mash numbers into something that’s being sold in the store — that’s not really a fitting,” said Powell. With The Pencil Test’s color-coded size charts, customers can easily find what they need or want once they’ve been properly fitted.
While the appointment fittings were meant to safely help customers during the height of COVID-19, the system’s positive feedback has kept it in place even as COVID restrictions have eased. The boutique still offers drop-in shopping however, and even shares an online store with the original Portland location, which just celebrated its 11-year anniversary.
The Pencil Test’s Renton location opened four years ago because Powell said many of her customers in the original store were driving all the way from Seattle — including Fialdini. In fact, many of the women who currently work at The Pencil Test were once customers.
When it came to choosing her second location, Powell said that Renton made the most sense. “I chose Renton because it’s where I-405 and I-5 meet,” she said. “Renton is so adorable! It has a Mainstreet, American vibe to it.”
While most of Powell’s employees work in-person at the boutique, her bookkeeper, Jaime Olson, works from home in eastern Washington. “Holly makes it easy to work here,” said Michael.
As far as the merchandise, The Pencil Test sells a wide variety of bras, including sports bras and maternity bras, bodysuits, swimsuits, underwear and binders. While everyone has their favorites in the store (Michael is the “bodysuit queen” and Fialdini loves “anything sexy”), the one thing that most everyone working at The Pencil Test can agree on is that molded cup bras are the worst.
“The nipple thing is a big thing for a lot of women,” Fialdini said, referencing certain bras that sacrifice a good fit in the name of making sure nothing shows through someone’s shirt.
“There’s been an embracing of a wide range of comfort,” Powell said, as more companies have begun to manufacture wire-less bras for larger busts. “People are more accepting about being more relaxed with their boobs and their bodies.”